Humans Aren’t Stats

Be sure to check out Metaphors of Mind and Money over at the Psy-Fi Blog. It’s a great overall read, but what caught me was the section, “Humans Aren’t Stats”:

This probably doesn’t seem like a big deal, but psychology embraced the concept wholeheartedly and great swathes of the subject were suddenly devoted to assuming that the human mind worked the same way as laboratory based statistical analysts did. Economics meanwhile was already set on a path that saw humans as rational processes of great swathes of data and embraced these ideas with alacrity. A tool for data manipulation was transformed into a metaphor for the human condition and from. People became all powerful manipulators of data, the mind a metaphorical statistician.

As Gigerenzer has pointed out on many occasions (see, for example Where do New Ideas Come From?) this probabilistic revolution is simply infeasible when implemented in the human brain. Once you leave the confines of the laboratory and expose people to the wide ranging set of stimuli in the real world it’s impossible to process data in the way that these models require [ed. emphasis mine]. Sure, it’s possible to use the metaphor to generate some interesting ideas, but going the further step to assuming that the mind works in the same way is close to crazy.

Bottom line, most of us are way too analytical for our own good, and we rely way too much on rational thinking and modeling to describe our environment and react to it. We’re able to be this way because we live in a very structured, sanitized, and (relatively) predictable environment.

But nature in its true form is neither neat nor predictable – and it often does a very good job of debunking human analysis and rationality in very sudden and powerful ways.

The key is, recognize that you have the luxury of living in a very unnatural world defined by several structured layers of comfort, security, and predictability – all of which are based on some type of dependency relationship. In short, stay sharp and don’t be oblivious to what lies just beyond the fringe of our neat little world.

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